Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bruce Franklin, Vishnu and Melvillle's Humor

Bruce Franklin's Wake of the Gods is one of my favorite books on Melville. Franklin is provocative and clear-headed and he meticulously and creatively attacks his research. He dives into it like Queequeg does a plate of beefsteaks. Melville was obsessed with the Gods and myths of all cultures and had ample opportunity to feed that obsession during his world travels, and Franklin is obsessed with Melville's obsession. And if you aren't using Franklin's index to non-Judeo Christian mythic references in the back of this book, you aren't really looking hard at Melville's whole world and all those wonderful themes that come from the contrast of the civilized and barbaric, the pantheistic and monotheistic and the east and the west.

BUT, I've got a bone to pick with you Bruce. In the chapter on Moby Dick, you argue that we should dismiss Melville's references to Vishnu and comparisons of The White Whale to Vishnu because Melville "ridicules" the Vishnu / whale myth, where Vishnu is incarnated as a whale to retreive the Vedas from the bottom of the Ocean. It is one thing to equate Ishmael's narrative with Melville's voice, Bruce, and we understand how often that is done, and none of us can ever avoid doing it at some point, but to suggest Melville does not mock that which he might take seriously? Alas and Pshaw! Not one now to mock his own grinning! No one mocks that which his Creator may mean more than Poor Ishmael. Yes, Bruce, Melville ridicules, and has Ishmael ridicule, that which he might hold dear - and he does it all the time.

This point of Franklin's isn't critical to his central thesis: it is a prelude, a response to an alternative reading that he is dismissing, and that central reading, which sees Moby Dick as structured by the Osiris/Isis myth of ancient Egypt, remains fascinating. But, still, this goes to the approach we take in reading Moby Dick, and how we interpret Melville. And this is a case where a truly wonderful scholar got confused by that ever-confounding Melvillian tone. Be wary if you will sail these waters!

Let's not dismiss that Vishnu myth quite so lightly. We'll look at this more when we get to the chapters where the references appear, and we'll also note as we go through the role of mockery in Moby.

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